- Part 1, Chapter 1
- Part 1, Chapter 2
- Part 1, Chapter 3
- Part 1, Chapter 4
- Part 1, Chapter 5
- Part 1, Chapter 6
- Part 2, Chapter 1
- Part 2, Chapter 2
Plot summary: The subject of this long chapter is the first day of Meursault's trial. We are never allowed to lose sight of the fact that it is a hot day. The events that make up the chapter are familiar to any real-life or fictional trial: entry of the accused into the courtroom, a panorama of various people and groups in the courtroom, the official protocol of calling witnesses, questioning by lawyers, interspersed commentary by lawyers, gradual assembling of data by the prosecution. Storytellers love courtroom scenes because of the human drama they contain, and Camus "works" the situation to the maximum by inventing a long trial scene. Not wishing to become interpretive in this brief plot summary, I will nonetheless note that this chapter has a hidden plot conflict in addition to the obvious conflict between the accused and the prosecutor. It is the conflict between how Meursault experienced the events covered in part one of the novel and the sinister and fanciful twist that the prosecutor places on those events.
The courtroom trial genre of chapter three is well-defined and extremely popular. From one point of view, the courtroom trial has all the ingredients of a good story. The essence of plot is conflict, and in a trial scene the conflict is a variation on the martial theme of single combat, as the focus of hostility is the interaction between the accused (the defendant) and the accuser (the prosecutor). The stakes of combat---life and death---are momentous.
Other plot staples are also highlighted in trial scenes. The elements of suspense and surprise explode in a good trial scene. When the trial begins, we have no clear picture of what evidence will emerge and what interpretations will be placed on it. We are repeatedly surprised. But what if we already know the eventual verdict? In his classic essay "On Stories," C. S. Lewis used the formula "ideal surprisingness" to name a quality of stories like Little Red Ridinghood to denote a perpetual quality of surprise in good suspense stories. Additionally, all good trial scenes have something of the riddle at their core.
Good plots possess a quality of discovery that gradually unfolds with events. Things keep changing. As readers, we begin chapter three assuming that we know everything about Meursault and the murder, but in fact we learn a fair amount of new information as the chapter progresses. We experience the novel along with the first-person narrator, and if we follow Meursault's account of the trial we can see that he, too, discovers a lot: people in the courtroom loathe him, and the prosecutor is manipulating the evidence in ways that could not have been imagined.
In addition to all of the riches of plot that I have been noting, we can consider the characters in this courtroom drama. They are vividly portrayed and varied. Storytellers love battle and courtroom stories because they allow for the portrayal of character under pressure. The characterization of the prosecutor is a story all by itself, and his chief trait is cleverness in manipulating data.
Courtroom protocol is yet another level of excitement in a trial scene. The list is extensive: entry of persons, call to order, choosing of the jury, reporters with fountain pens poised, preliminary questioning of the defendant, calling and questioning of witnesses, responses of observers, addressing of the jury, and so on.
For a reader eager to get to the "message" of this novel, my emphasis on the dynamics of plot and characterization might seem a trivial exercise. But it is not. One of the purposes of literature is to be entertaining and provide the materials for rewarding leisure. There is more to chapter three than what I have covered, but that is where we need to start, and not to feel apologetic about enjoying a really good trial scene.
For reflection or discussion: All I have done so far is name the ingredients of a good courtroom story; the payoff comes when we are aware of those elements as we read. What are the noteworthy instances of conflict, suspense, surprise, and discovery that you relish? How does Camus exploit the resources of characterization? What draws you into this episode?
I propose that the central character of chapter three is the prosecutor. Once the trial gets started, he instigates the action. We first notice his assertiveness in pursuing an apparently pre-planned line of inquiry designed to yield a guilty verdict. He pushes witnesses around under his relentless questioning. He is like Iago in Shakespeare's Othello in stage-managing characters, getting them to do what he wants.
In addition to this assertiveness, the prosecutor is adept at distorting evidence. Later I will theorize about what Camus intends with the prosecutor's line of reasoning, but for the moment I would like my readers to go with the flow of what unfolds. I don't think the prosecutor is devoted to uncovering the truth. He seems rather to be engaged in a personal vendetta against Meursault. For readers who agree, the dynamic of what is happening is one that storytellers often employ. Camus creates a situation in which readers or spectators want to intervene and rein in a character who is in the process of destroying someone. The more we feel a need to do so and simultaneously feel our own helplessness, the more the story exerts its power over us.
I am claiming a deviousness about the prosecutor. Yet there is complexity even in this. It is entirely just that Meursault be found guilty. He is a murderer and deserves to be punished. Why, then, does the prosecutor build a case on irrelevant details? Because Camus has a philosophic or worldview agenda that he is pushing.
For reflection or discussion: I have presented my view of the prosecutor. I invite my readers to record their "take" on the prosecutor.
Absurdist Worldview from a New Angle
In my commentary on part one, I repeatedly offered Meursault as an absurd hero---a protagonist who embodies an absurdist view of life. Camus himself accorded Meursault a much fuller definition of hero. In the introduction to an American edition of the novel that I referenced in earlier articles, Camus expressed his view that Meursault is "heroic" and someone who "agrees to die for the truth."
At several earlier points I also asserted that a double judgment arises in us as we read---against Meursault but also against his society. But until now the judgment against Meursault's society is a verdict on its moral depravity and evil. Something new enters with chapter three.
It now emerges that more than Meursault is absurd; so is his society. We get the same message from two angles. I am reminded of a similar strategy in T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot embodies his Christian viewpoint in two forms---in the life of an exemplary Christian martyr, and in the coming to saving faith of the chorus (identified as the poor women of Canterbury). In a parallel manner, the absurdist view of The Stranger resides in the central character and also in the society that he inhabits.
We get premonitions of absurdist society in this chapter. It is mainly situated in the behavior of the prosecutor and consists of the case that he builds against the accused. This theme first surfaces when the prosecutor asks Meursault why he sent his mother to a retirement home. Then Meursault's failure to weep at his mother's funeral is paraded before the jury as condemning evidence against the defendant. He had smoked at his mother's wake and drunk coffee. And that is only the beginning of absurdities, which culminate in the prosecutor's claim that Meursault was "already a criminal at heart" (Gilbert translation). There is a sense in which all people are murderers (or something else) at heart, but it is absurd to put a person on trial for that.
For reflection or discussion: Earlier I praised chapter three as a suspense story possessing one surprise after another; tracing the unpredictable logic of the prosecutor is one way to relish Camus's skill in creating a story of surprises. I also offered the view that by composing a story in which a man is on the verge of being convicted on irrelevant grounds is pressed in the service of asserting an absurdist view of the world; how does this work itself out as the chapter unfolds? What are the most absurd details in the prosecutor's statements?
Meursault in New Light
A great story keeps asking us to revise our understanding as the story unfolds. I believe that is true in regard to our assessment of Meursault, starting in chapter three. I cannot see that up to this point Meursault has any redeeming qualities. He is sensual, unfeeling, hedonistic, incapable of attaching normal human meaning to the events in his life, enslaved to immediate sensation, in many ways living a subhuman existence.
This indictment of Merusault continues in the trial scene of chapter three. I consider it to be the subordinate theme in the characterization of Meursault in this chapter, but we need to trace it as the chapter unfolds. Meursault remains abnormally sensitive to heat, and the familiar references to his inability to follow what is happening continue. Surely we believe that Meursault's quick dismissal of his mother's death on the weekend after he took up with Marie reflects deficient behavior.
But we come to sympathize with Meursault as we see him victimized by the bullying prosecutor. I believe Camus composed the chapter to generate sympathy for Meursault from start to finish. Virtually the first thing that Meursault learns is that "the court will dispatch your case as quickly as possible, as it isn't the most important one" (Gilbert translation). In keeping with what I said in an earlier posting about an incipient symbolism at work in the story, we can see here the belittling of the individual that Camus protests.
But the huge surge of sympathy that Camus generates for his protagonist comes when the prosecutor bases his case against Meursault on irrelevancies. One example out of many is the prosecutor's claim that when offered a cup of coffee at the funeral home Meursault should have refused it out of respect to the mother who brought him into the world.
Two other strands are introduced to make us sympathize with Meursault. One is the loyalty of friends who testify on his behalf. We instinctively side with them and against the prosecutor. Additionally, we can see that Meursault is being unfairly cast in a negative light by the prosecutor. As readers we were privy on the basis of part one of the novel to many of the events misrepresented by the prosecutor (and sometimes correctly presented by Meursault's friends on the witness stand).
For reflection or discussion: Make a mental or marginal note of the places in the chapter where you sympathize with Meursault. What do you think Camus intends with this shift in our attitude toward Meursault?